When the original constitution of the United States of America—the Articles of Confederation of 1783—proved to be inadequate to the capitalist interests of the time, the ruling elites drafted a second constitution. The document that emerged from Philadelphia on September 17, 1787, was designed to allow the expansion and concomitant wealth amassment that climaxed in 1890 with the “closing of the frontier”—a euphemism for the final stage of a genocide and, in 1898, the acquisition of “overseas” colonies.
The oligarchy that founded the United States of America clothed the new country as a republic. However, that elite did not pretend it to also resemble a “democracy.” Most people could not even vote back then. Slavery was not abolished until 1865, while women and “free negroes” were, at best, second-class citizens, and so-called “Indians” were an obstacle to be quashed. The dictum of equality included in the Declaration of Independence was in reality limited to “white” men of property, preferably of “Anglo-Saxon” extraction. Oligarchical rule and the absence of democracy is a foundation that helps explain much of the evolution of American global capitalism and domination, as well as the current crisis, made worse by a pandemic and a malignant, murderous narcissist occupying the White House.
The United States Constitution protected slavery, while bestowing considerable power to plantation slave owners and the southern states. The northern elites needed those southern folks—both their wealth, and their cooperation in creating the governmental structure that they wanted and required for their cherished financial growth. The Constitution created a common market via its commerce clause, and gave the new federal government exclusive power over monetary policy, bankruptcy and maritime law, foreign relations and trade, and treatises. It included protection for the enforcement of contracts, and a supremacy clause declaring that federal laws and the Constitution are the highest law of the land, to be enforced by a federal judiciary. It also created the presidency, bestowing the president with significant powers, not only as chief executive and chief of state, but also as the “commander-in-chief” of the armed forces.
For 18th-century American elites, British parliamentary supremacy was a dreadful, recent memory. Thus, the separation of powers and other structural gambits followed from the notion that concentrated power is, or could become, a threat to propertied interests. What the framers of the Constitution did not know then was that wealth-hoarding would eventually require the kind of power clustering that their republican balancing act intended to avoid, and worse. Tyranny was a matter of time. Oppression and exploitation would come first; then, full-blown tyranny. That is what we are witnessing today, with more or less horror.
Joined at the Hip
From the outset, the federal monopoly over official violence would be at the service of economic expansion. Nothing and no one would stop the drive toward more wealth, which required more territory and new markets. Obstacles from home and abroad—“Indians,” Mexicans, whoever—would be crushed by the United States Army, Navy, and Marines. The draconian measures approved during the two world wars and the post-911 “war on terror” illustrate that domestic, totalitarian tactics have already been rehearsed, from the Sedition Act of 1918—still in the books—to the 2001 Patriot Act.
The Spanish-American War was fought when the effects of the Great Depression of 1893 were still lingering. That was no coincidence. Frightened American capitalists needed new markets, fast. Commander-in-chief McKinley obliged, giving them a “splendid little war,” at the end of which the United States became a full-blown empire. It is no coincidence that military strategists, notably Alfred T. Mahan, had been urging for coaling stations, naval bases in the Caribbean and the Pacific, and the modernization of the Navy. Capitalist expansion—imperialism and military power—are joined at the hip.
The domination of the United States would mostly be an economic (capitalist) hegemony, enforced by military might, which it exercised not only over its colonies—Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and Hawaii—but also over China and the Far East, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America. During the first four decades of the 20th century, United States armed forces invaded and occupied Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Guatemala to protect the interests of United Fruit, Standard Oil, and other American corporations and banks. In an instance of inconsequential candor, General Smedley Butler, who fought in the Philippines, China, and Central America, wrote that he had been “a high-class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers; a gangster for capitalism.” And so he was, as well as countless other officers and soldiers, from the birth of the country to the present day.
The First World War was about who was going to dominate the new imperial era, which began in the 1880s with the carving of Africa by the European powers, and in 1898 with the United States prevailing in the Spanish-American War. Imperialism on both sides of the Atlantic was the doing of restless capitalist elites, who steered governments toward aiding their economic penetration outside the borders of the limited markets of their respective nation-states. That penetration required armies. The Second World War—which was the continuation and conclusion of the war of 1914, after a 20-year truce—was about who was going to call the shots in the post-imperial world. The late colonies would still be dominated, but who would be their main master?
The so-called post-World War II military-industrial complex had already shown its ugly face by the mid-1800s. The Civil War was profitable for a handful of what we now call “government contractors,” who provided the guns and ammunition to both sides. Capitalists have only one ideology, one god, one country: profits. They are simple-minded and monothematic that way. One of the problems they faced after the carnage of that war was what to do with the immense, obscene profits they had accumulated at the expense of almost 700,000 dead soldiers, and the devastation of southern lands. That unholy surplus was not totally put to “good use” until after the Spanish-American War.
Woodrow Wilson was clear-headed enough to know that his job was supporting American capitalist expansion, that is, new opportunities for yet more profits. The invasions he ordered during his two terms, and the participation in the European war known as World War I, followed from that primal role of the U.S. government, facilitated by the Constitution of 1787. Saintly Franklin Delano Roosevelt was also aware of that role, and had no qualms about installing and supporting tyrants in countries where American corporations had been wreaking havoc for decades, usually with U.S. or “local” soldiers as their enforcers. About the first of the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua, FDR is reported as having quipped, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” That he did not actually say it would be irrelevant.
Power and Capitalism on Steroids
By 1945, Germany, France and Great Britain—the other three capitalist, imperial powers—were devastated. American capitalism prevailed, and it began to spread all over the globe. The Soviet Union (and, to a lesser extent, China) challenged that hegemony but, by the late 1980s, the Soviets surrendered. The current stage of capitalism was already in full force by then. Hayek and Friedman on the theoretical side, Reagan and Thatcher in the political arena, were the godparents of the current brand of unbridled, omnipotent, omnipresent, destructive, inhumane, unmerciful, murderous capitalism we know as “neoliberalism.” It is not a new phenomenon, of course. It has only been given the blessing of too many thinkers, politicians, and the media, although it is good-old-capitalism, on steroids.
In the United States, the weakening of the unions, the rolling back of regulations, the financializing of the economy, the flight of manufacturing to China and other loci of cheap labor, the owning of politicians by the mega rich, the dwindling of the middle class, the resulting increase in wealth inequality, the ecological and climate devastation, the social unrest and scapegoating—all that and worse has been taking place while the presidential powers were bloating, and the societal and institutional checks and balances were shrinking. Power is a zero-sum game. Today, under Trump’s dictatorial regime, those checks and balances are virtually non-existent. Had that been the political and social environment in 1974, President Nixon would not have resigned.
The Convenience and Effects of Myths
The prevailing narratives—today, and 250 years ago—have been, and are, mostly myths. But myths are powerful constructs, and useful to the ruling classes. It is hard to conceive a place where myths are more important than in the United States. The reason for that may very well be that the monstrosities are so egregious, the abuses are so removed from the ideals of equality, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that a mythical narrative was essential—and convenient—for the stability of the rule of the few. Then, it so happens that when common folks are invested in the myths, they often become fanatical and violent; their most enthusiastic enforcers. Every time that the myths fail to live up to the concomitant expectations, scapegoating and violence are a common reaction. Disunion and violence seem easier than confronting the lies. Facing reality comes with a price, which seems unbearable to many: the disintegration of their little, simplistic, Manichean, fantasy world.
One of the central tenets of the American mythology is that freedom, democracy and capitalism are coterminous. But, today, capitalism has been once again unmasked as the freedom of the few to exploit, and even kill, the many. The U.S. government has always been the facilitator of that “freedom.” Heck, its Constitution was designed for such a central, monomaniacal task. Again, the bigger the monstrosities, the more intricate the lies that cover them up. A new economic and social model is urgent, because the unlimited growth of profits that capitalism demands, which requires unbridled political power, is antithetical to life itself. Yes, capitalism leads to totalitarianism because, as Hannah Arendt wrote 70 years ago, unlimited growth demands unlimited power. It is also inescapable that it leads to a devastated planet, and to an impoverished, sad humanity.
The Current Crossroads
Trump is an opportunist, pouncing on a weakened country. Some of the features of today’s American society have been more or less constant, including a stupefied, divided, and obedient population. The current dwindling of the middle class occurs when the economic boom of the postwar period is still a vivid memory. Trump and the demagogues blame the decline on immigrants, liberals, and everything and everyone but the real culprits. The concentration of wealth in a few hands, the abuses of Big Pharma, Big Agro, the oil consortiums, Silicon Valley, and the media conglomerates—all that and worse has nothing to do with Mexicans, Salvadorans, or Muslims, and everything to do with unfettered greed and its enabling by the neoliberal policies that have been enacted since Reagan. A President Biden will not undo all that, even if he wanted to. I am afraid that oligarchs and tyrants will reign supreme for decades to come; maybe for the rest of the century.
The United States of America was never a democracy. At best, it has always been an oligarchy, dressed as a republic. That clothing allowed for some degree of rule of law, and some space for reforms and limited experimentation. Today, the amoral American oligarchy seems to be too greedy, too powerful and wealthy, to be contained. Politicians of the two main parties have not even tried to limit the effects of its rapacity. Instead, they have opted for a piece of the action. The current crumbling of the last remnants of the rule of law, and of societal and institutional checks and balances, is the culmination of a decades-long, even centuries-long, process. It seems that tyranny is, was, inevitable. We are witnessing the discarding of the republican garb. Trump is the first American emperor. The republic is a shell, a zombie—pick your metaphor. The American experiment may be over, and the imperial republic, in its last throes.